By Dave Leaderhouse
The puck drops on the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s 49th season this weekend and the excitement is building to see who will emerge as the Canalta Cup champion in seven months time.
Can the Melfort Mustangs perform a three-peat or will it be one of the other 11 franchises capturing bragging rights? Parity in the SJHL has steadily moved forward in recent years so at this time of the year it is anyone’s guess as to who will emerge as champion.
A lot has happened around the league since Melfort defeated Flin Flon in the championship final and Estevan hosted a hugely successful Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup last spring. Four new faces are taking over teams as Kevin Hasselberg left the Battlefords North Stars for a professional job in Florida, Bryce Thoma moved on from the Weyburn Red Wings to assume an assistant coaching position with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades, Trent Cassan also went to the WHL leaving the Yorkton Terriers for an assistant position with the Calgary Hitmen and Jamie Feisel was relieved of his duties with the Melville Millionaires after more than a decade leading the “Moneymen.”
In their places will be Nate Bedford in the Battlefords, Wes Rudy in Weyburn, Casey O’Brien in Yorkton and Devin Windle in Melville. Rudy, O’Brien and Windle were all assistants in the league last year while Bedford comes over to the SJHL after four seasons in Fort McMurray at Keyano College.
In addition to the changing of the guard behind the benches there will be a number of new players in the league as the usual crop of graduating players moves on to other ventures including an impressive 60-plus who received scholarships to post-secondary institutions. The first wave of bantam-draft players, a process started two years ago, could also make its appearance this year so the level of competition is only going to get better in the SJHL.
To recap what happened a year ago the Battlefords North Stars rose to the top posting a 43-11-2-2 record to runaway with both the overall title and the Finning Division banner. The Melfort Mustangs held off both the Nipawin Hawks and Flin Flon Bombers to capture the Sherwood Division crown and the Weyburn Red Wings moved back into the upper echelon with an impressive regular season to secure the Viterra Division title.
Flin Flon turned out to be the division beaters in the playoffs as the sixth seed upset Weyburn in the quarter-finals and the North Stars in the semi-finals before falling to the defending champion Mustangs in the league final.
Goaltending was at a premium once again last year with La Ronge’s Kris Joyce being named the most valuable player and Weyburn’s Jack Burghart taking home the top netminder award. Both are gone this year so the mantle is wide open for someone to step forward and continue the legacy of premier goaltenders coming from the SJHL.
Melfort’s Travis Mayan successfully defended his individual scoring title, but he too, has moved on to the collegiate ranks so that race will be looking for a successor as well.
As is usually the case the opening weekend begins with a series of home-and-home tilts pitting rivals against each other. The Battlefords meet Kindersley, Melfort goes up against La Ronge, Nipawin faces Flin Flon, Humboldt battles Notre Dame, Estevan travels to Melville and Weyburn squares off against Yorkton.
Saturday will be the first of just a handful of nights where all 12 teams will be in action at the same time and once the opening weekend is in the books the teams will settle in for a regular schedule that will cover more than 350 games and six months of entertainment.
Included in that busy schedule is the annual Showcase that will take place in Warman from Sept. 25-28 and that will be the first opportunity for the players and coaches to display their talents before what is expected to be a large crowd of scouts from all levels of hockey.
The SJHL has been gaining momentum in the junior ranks in recent years and this season expects to see another level being achieved. The playing field is level, at the moment, and it is likely to remain that way for the entire season as all 12 teams come into the regular campaign with high expectations.
Nipawin at Flin Flon
Melfort at La Ronge
Kindersley at Battlefords
Estevan at Melville
Weyburn at Yorkton
Melville at Estevan
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Battlefords at Kindersley
La Ronge at Melfort
Flin Flon at Nipawin
Yorkton at Weyburn
Humboldt at Notre Dame